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Setting Unsaid Rules at the Workplace

The workplace is a dynamic and intricate environment, which is connected by the thread of thoughts, ideas, values and behaviours of individuals. This interconnectedness builds the ecosystem and climate of an organisation, which shapes the experiences of both customers and employees.

As people analysts and social scientists, we focus a great deal on the creation of rules and regulations, and policies that benefit all stakeholders. Undoubtedly, having such structural processes and guidelines sets up a baseline for productivity and the success of a business. However, human behaviour is more nuanced and complicated than following instructions from words written on paper.

How Do We Learn?

Learning is not limited to just the cognitive processes of memory and recall. If one were to delve deeper into the psychological aspects of learning that play a role in how humans learn new skills, such as tasks, actions and languages, they would also become more aware of the ability to learn through observation and imitation. Prominent psychologist Albert Bandura explains how children learn through imitating the actions of others, more specifically, elders. You might have noticed that a child’s play is often a reenactment of actual activities observed from a distance, like what happens in the kitchen or how teachers go about their day in school. But, it would be a grave mistake to believe that this form of learning stops in childhood. 

A few steps go into learning through observation, or what is technically called Social Learning. These are:

  1. Observation

  2. Retention

  3. Imitation

  4. Motivation

Let us take a look at an example of preparing your favourite meal. While growing up, you might have noticed your mother preparing your favourite meal. Observation often stems from interest, so if you were interested, you would have made a note of her chopping and assembling the ingredients, occasionally stirring the ingredients in a pot, and maybe even grinding some ingredients to create pastes. Noting the different actions that go into preparing is called observation. As an extension of this example, if you wanted to recreate the same meal, you would not be able to do it by only observing the actions; you would also need to remember the steps and their correct sequence to recreate the dish successfully. This process is called retention. Once you have been able to remember the steps successfully, you will then need to imitate the exact actions your mother engaged in when she was cooking for you to be able to recreate the dish. However, the steps of being able to learn continue. You would also need to be encouraged to continue the same process. So, if you recreate the same flavours that your mother cooked, you are more likely to cook the meal again. If not, you would be discouraged from cooking the meal again. The outcome of the dish now determines your motivation to repeat the act of cooking your favourite meal.

Monkey Do What Monkey See

So, how is this relevant in the workplace? When we engage in behaviours at home, work or any other social setting, we are complacent about the power of observation. We create and communicate a lot of patterns without ever stating them verbally or in writing. These patterns then become the unsaid rules of the environment.

Employees learn working styles from their peers and superiors. While documented policies ensure uniformity in the organisation, people managers often overlook the power of observation. These observations are what establish the unspoken rules that are crucial to building an organisational climate which is conducive to achieving success and growth. Any employee, especially new recruits, become more aware of intricate processes or role-specific skills and techniques by observing others, which is critical to developing better efficacy at work. 

Leaders and senior members of the organisation, due to their stature, experience and expertise, are in a position to create a more significant influence on the behaviours observed and learned by others. Employees are likelier to imitate specific actions if someone in authority first demonstrates them. 

It is essential to note that behaviours aren’t just learnt through observation and imitation. The consequences one experiences from the behaviour are critical to building the motivation for repeating the behaviour in the future. For example, an employee observed a colleague engaging in a brainstorming session with team members; a few weeks later, the employee imitates the same brainstorming activity and receives praise for engaging in the action. The employee then is more likely to engage in collaborative work in the future. But, if they receive backlash for conducting the brainstorming activity, they are less likely to engage in similar cooperative behaviour. So, while imitation or replication is essential for learning, understanding what consequences follow the behaviour will determine how motivated the employee will be to continue to imitate the behaviour. 

Experiencing a consequence of behaviour makes the person feel motivated to repeat the behaviour, which can occur vicariously through observing the results of the behaviours of others. For example, if a team member received criticism for being late to work, an observing employee would learn to be punctual. 

These examples mentioned are rudimentary and seem common sense about acceptable or unacceptable behaviour in any workplace. Still, managers often overlook how leaders trickle down behaviours to the last mile employee. Therefore, managers must identify the behaviours they would or would not want to see demonstrated in the organisation. The consequences of those behaviours also need to be determined to ensure that the proper behaviours are in place and observed by others to create more effective and positive unsaid rules in the organisation. This will, in turn, build an encouraging and supportive climate that will help employees thrive.


Psst! This blog was made with💚 and created after some thought by a real person.#NoGenerativeAI


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